“in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.” (1 Peter 3:19–20, NASB95)
Verses 18-22 have proven to present some challenges to those attempting to properly exegete or interpret the text, arriving at a variety of possible meanings with some being excluded because they contradict other passages of Scripture and others being left as preferential understandings that are held loosely because of a lack of clarity. Clearly there are some things in Scripture that remain mysteries to some degree. In these we must always walk carefully, always seeking to make sure that our thinking aligns with the entirety of Scripture and that our theology is not twisted as a result. This is the case with these verses, where for most believers we read it, don’t clearly understand it, and entrust the ultimate meaning to God. There are some, however, who have used them to build divergent theologies which are not clearly supportable.
Dr. John Constable wrote the following concerning these verses in his Notes on 1 Peter (http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes.htm),
“Verses 18-22 contain some very difficult exegetical problems. Who are the "spirits" who received a "proclamation" (v. 19)? When did Jesus make this proclamation? What was its content? Why did Peter mention "Noah"? In what sense does "baptism" save us?
“One group of interpreters believes Jesus went to the realm of the dead and preached to Noah's contemporaries between His crucifixion and His resurrection. Some of these say He extended an offer of salvation to them. Others feel He announced condemnation to the unbelievers. Still others hold that He announced good news to the saved among them.
“A second group believes Jesus preached to Noah's sinful generation while Noah was living on the earth. They see Him doing so through Noah.
“A third group holds that Jesus proclaimed His victory on the cross to fallen angels. Some advocates of this view say this took place in hell between His crucifixion and His resurrection. Others believe it happened during His ascension to heaven.” (p.55)
He then proceeded in his notes to break these passages down and discuss his understanding in detail. I will not focus on his entire notes here, but only on those concerning verses 19-20, and the identity of “the spirits now in prison.” Dr. Constable’s basis for approaching these next verses arises from his best understanding of the verse that came before. Of verse 18 he wrote, “A fourth view sees "flesh" as describing Jesus' pre-resurrection condition (following the Incarnation), and "spirit" as referring to His post-resurrection condition. Peter used the same terminology in 4:6, where he referred to Christians who had died but were now alive. I prefer this view.” From this He moved forward to evaluate the next verses as that which Jesus did in His post-resurrection condition. Again, after considering a variety of understandings and how problematic they might be in relation to the rest of Scripture, Dr. Constable presented one that He believed to be most preferred. I really appreciate how Dr. Constable again introduced the understanding he felt most reasonable.
“A more probable explanation is that these "spirits" were the unbelievers who disobeyed God in Noah's day by rejecting his preaching. They are now "spirits," since they died long ago and their bodies have not yet experienced resurrection. He said the "spirits" of these unbelievers are "in prison" now (i.e., Sheol), awaiting resurrection and judgment by God (cf. Rev. 20:11-15). One could say that Jesus proclaimed a message to Noah's unbelieving contemporaries in His spirit (i.e., His spiritual state of life before the Incarnation) through Noah. (p. 58)”
Moving forward from this, he then wrote, “Noah was preaching a message that God had given him, and in this sense Jesus Christ spoke through him (cf. 2 Cor. 5:20). In the same sense, Jesus Christ was speaking through Peter's readers to their unbelieving persecutors, as they bore witness for Him in a hostile world. Noah faced the same type of opposition, in his day, that Peter's original readers did in theirs, and we do in ours. (p. 59)” Notice the same message of encouragement which has been consistent from Peter throughout this letter. Peter took his readers back to Noah and pointed to how even Noah kept his focus on the task before him and the message given him by Christ as he pleaded with those around him who rejected him and are now awaiting final judgment. Dr. Constable added, “God would bring Peter's readers safely through their trials, just as He had brought Noah safely through his trials into a whole new world. God had done this for Noah, even though he and his family were a small minority in their day. Furthermore, as God judged the mockers in Noah's day, so will He judge those who persecuted Peter's readers. … God is so patient that he waited for 120 years before sending the Flood in Noah's day (Gen. 6:3). Today He also waits, so patiently that some people conclude that He will never judge (cf. 2 Pet. 3:3-4). Relatively few will escape God's coming judgment, just as only eight escaped His former judgment. The rest will die. (p. 59)” (For Dr. Constable’s complete notes please visit the link provided above.)
The study of God’s Word will present challenges, but the challenges are never to be a reason for not spending the time. When the tough questions come, we are blessed to have those around us or who have gone before us who have dug deeper and who can help to explain. This is what pastors do for us every week as they spend considerable time in sermon preparation so that they might accurately present to us the Word of God. It is for this reason that I paused when I came to this passage. I asked my pastor of twenty-three years his understanding. He in turn expressed his lack of clarity having not studied it in some time, and then he referred me to someone he respected where I read these notes of Dr. Constable.
God’s Word is not something that is to be left only to these deep thinkers and trained theologians. It is given to all of us so that we might be able to hide it in our hearts and use it to direct our steps. Sure, there might be times where we might hold loosely a passage because of a lack of clarity. Studying His Word, we continue to grow in our love for God, our understanding of Him and His direction for us.
Our God is the same yesterday, today and forever. He does not change. His truth stands forever. Just as Noah knew His faithfulness, he also knew the severity of rejection. Peter wrote to his readers encouraging them in the face of severity as well, and today as we face challenges to our faith we can know that our God will never let loose. He holds us firmly in His hands and He will surely judge those who reject Him. Our task is to keep our eyes on Him while we seek to be His light in a dark and desperate needy world.
God brought those eight safely through the water. He brought those in the early church safely through, and He will bring us as well.
“(9) How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word.” … “(11) Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” … “(105) Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:9,11,105, NASB95)
“(129) Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul observes them. (130) The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. (131) I opened my mouth wide and panted, for I longed for Your commandments. (132) Turn to me and be gracious to me, after Your manner with those who love Your name. (133) Establish my footsteps in Your word, and do not let any iniquity have dominion over me. (134) Redeem me from the oppression of man, that I may keep Your precepts. (135) Make Your face shine upon Your servant, and teach me Your statutes. (136) My eyes shed streams of water, because they do not keep Your law. (137) Righteous are You, O Lord, and upright are Your judgments.” (Psalm 119:129–137, NASB95)